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2015 Finale: The Profoundly Disabled as our Human Equals

In a sensitively structured and cogent conclusion to his Gifford Lecture Series, Professor20150127_Gifford_Lecture_2_still3 Jeremy Waldron tonight set out his argument for the full, unequivocal inclusion of those who are ‘profoundly disabled’ within his schemata for ‘basic human equality’. As he described his ‘bottom line’: ‘those who are profoundly disabled are human persons too, endowed with human dignity, distinct from non-human animals, and entitled to human equality’.

The ‘profound disabled’ may be cognitively impaired or unresponsive through congenital acquisition, accident or disease, or through the decline of age with conditions such as dementia. The profundity of their situation can be distinguished from those who are disabled but yet retain many capacities, such as those who are deaf or who have Downs Syndrome. In ‘profound’ cases, there may have been a ‘radical failure’ of one or more capacities that when clustered together would have ‘dignity-conferring significance’ for human equality. We need to find a reconciling basis of human equality with such situations, acknowledging the absence of such properties. The relation is not straightforward, but just because it is complicated does not mean it is tenuous or ambiguous.

In Professor Waldron’s view, we must avoid the approach of some philosophers who, given such circumstances, ‘opportunistically’ abandon moral capabilities as a host of human equality, and so deny the distinctions of humans to non-human animals. He critiqued, in particular, the views of Peter Singer. When assessing ‘self-awareness’ and ‘autonomy’ as necessary properties, Singer concludes that there are intellectually disabled humans ‘who have less claim [to such properties] as many nonhuman animals’. Therefore, for Singer, the conclusion is ‘to elevate the status of animals rather than to lower the status of any humans’.

On this basis, one would have to include non-human animals in a consideration of equality, or exclude the profoundly disabled human. In denying that humans possess ‘something special’, for Professor Waldron the views of Singer run the danger of re-introducing, sotto voce, a form of discontinuity. Instead, for the non-profoundly disabled, the answer must be to widen the range when considering ‘range properties’. Should that range simply be ‘manipulated’ further so as to include the ‘profoundly disabled’?

Whilst that would be one possibility, it was discounted as insufficient by Professor Waldron, along with other alternatives, such as:

  • To brush the problem aside;
  • To simply focus on membership of the human species; or
  • To invoke religious status – we are all loved and treasured equally by God

Instead, Professor Waldron’s answer was twofold, which he illustrated with the analogy to a human baby. The baby is incapable of certain modes of thought and moral reasoning. However, it is a mistake to think of the baby in ‘static terms’. Firstly, a baby is at the early stage of his/her life and will grow and develop as an adult, and may thereafter decline. We must therefore value the whole life. That is what we confer human dignity upon – the trajectory of human life, rather than a ‘time-slice’. The way to think of human lives is of a set of circles connected by a thread, or like a slice in a ‘salami sausage shape’. We are one another’s equals throughout our lives, no matter where our circle or slice may be. The failure of Singer is not to compare like with like – an animal should be compared with a human over the whole trajectory, or a ‘profoundly disabled’ human with a similar animal.

As we reflect on our brittleness and fragility in the face of life’s vicissitudes, we consider those with ‘profound disability’ and recognise our equality by concluding ‘that might have been me…my life is vulnerable in that way too’.

Secondly, as an alternative, one can consider the teleological relation. As Locke said, children are not born in a full state of equality, but to it. In other words, the potential exists for human flourishing. In some cases, this potential may have been blocked, damaged, or superseded, but the essential infrastructure or organisation of the being has not altered. This may have a religious basis, but is equally capable of assessment from an evolutionary, biological stance.

In all of this we consider also the ‘tragedy’, or more properly ‘misfortune’, of the ‘profoundly disabled’ person, who is surrounded by other humans who may lack his/her impairment, but who do express profound love – ‘this is my child’; ‘this is the love of my life’. There is a compassion for misfortune, inexplicable other than as ‘this has happened to one of us’ and not another species, to one who had the potential and with whom we share the burden.

In conclusion, Professor Waldron stated that for human equality there is not ‘a talisman’, a ‘God-given nugget’ that is simple to comprehend, but instead ‘complexity at every turn’. Humans are ‘challengingly different’, and yet in the midst, the idea of equal worth ‘sparkles’, even if ‘elusive and complicated’.


It has been an engagingly rich series of lectures, raising many illuminating aspects of a vitally important subject, and delivered in a passionate and eloquent manner throughout by Professor Waldron. The depth of his knowledge and analytical powers, and his striking ability to elucidate and develop his arguments in answer to questioning, have been hallmarks of his presentation. We offer our grateful thanks to him.

  1. Now that the series is concluded, how would you assess Professor Waldron’s account of human equality?
  2. How would you evaluate the series as a whole?

Hope you have enjoyed and been stimulated by the content of the lectures. It’s been a pleasure after each one to offer a summary and raise questions for your consideration in this blog. Although the blog will now await the next Gifford Lecture Series, do comment with your thoughts by clicking the link below.



1 reply to “2015 Finale: The Profoundly Disabled as our Human Equals”

  1. larryhurtado says:

    I upload here my “Vote of Thanks” given after Professor Waldron’s final lecture in his series (05 February).
    Gifford Lectures 2015 Vote of Thanks
    Larry W. Hurtado
    In this year’s Edinburgh Gifford Lectures series, “One Another’s Equals: The Basis of Human Equality,” Professor Jeremy Waldron has guided us in exploring a most important question: What is the nature and basis of human equality? At the outset, he distinguished this question from what we might call “policy” questions about how our laws, judicial procedures, and our social and economic practices should reflect and promote appropriate equality in the treatment of people. Instead, he urged as his focus in these lectures what he called “basic equality,” which I take to mean a more foundational concept, what it is that can justify for us efforts at practical equality at policy levels. Another way to characterize “basic equality” might be to see it as a premise from which we approach the evident differences among people and the various policy questions. Or, perhaps, “basic equality” is a stance that makes inequalities potentially problematic, interrogating them with a deeper concern for a universal fairness and moral regard.
    This is obviously an important subject to probe for at least two reasons. First, there are obvious inequalities, differences among humans, in our various attributes, our physical abilities, mental abilities, communicative abilities, and relational abilities. There are differences in “race”, ethnicity, colour, sex, and differences in religion and other matters. One might even say that in the longer history of the human species it is these differences that have been more influential in shaping how we have regarded and treated one another. “Inequalities” (at least in the sense of obvious differences of the kind I’ve mentioned) have more often served as bases and explicit justification for sharply differential treatment of people, for example justifying treating some races or types as slaves or in other ways as subservient and/or not eligible for the same regard as given to those in the circle of the entitled. Professor Waldron readily agreed that “basic equality” is a relatively recent and still-fragile notion. So, any intention or disposition toward any form “equality” of regard would seem to need a clear and cogent expression of what it is that we mean by “basic equality,” what it is that justifies intellectually, even demands, that we see beyond differences and perceived inequalities to something more profound that unites us.
    Second, in light of this frequent, perhaps even pervasive, tendency (or, to use a religious term, temptation?) to make differences and perceived inequalities the basis for sharply differentiating the treatment of people, particularly for subordinating the interests of some groups or classes to the perceived interests of others, we need to articulate a notion of “basic equality” that is not only intellectually cogent, but also motivating, compelling, something with sufficient moral force that we can be moved (perhaps even shamed) to “do the right thing” toward others who are not of our own particular race or nation or sex or religious persuasion. As well as a desire for intellectual clarity, Professor Waldron’s own deep concern for this morally effective factor was, I think, also obvious in his lectures. There was a quiet (but unmistakable) passion as well as an incisive intellect evident in them.
    He also was commendably fair, even generous, in his engagement with other thinkers, even those today with whom he differs, seeking to identify shared concerns and valid points, even if in the end he found their proposals inadequate. Speaking personally, I appreciated as well his emphasis on the necessity to include religious faith-stances in the discussion, pointing to the potential contributions that faith-traditions might bring to the table. He thereby took a stance against the disposition of some who may underestimate this potential or would wish to banish all religious thought from public discourse. To use his expression, a “theological anthropology” may have something to offer, even to those for whom theology smacks of ignorance and witchcraft. Given the relative newness of serious society-wide efforts to develop and implement notions of equality (the imperfect initial efforts dating only from the 18th century), and the evident continuing need to justify and promote such notions against the powerful forces of inequality, surely he is correct to urge that all those who want to explore and affirm an outlook of “basic equality” (on whatever basis) should be encouraged to join the task. We cannot afford to be narrowly sectarian (either religious sectarian or anti-religious sectarian) in this endeavour. We need a virtual “war cabinet” approach that includes all parties who can assist in the effort. Professor Waldon’s inclusive stance is, to my mind, the obviously correct path to take.
    I should also note that as public communication, these lectures have been models of clarity and accessibility, even when he was introducing specialized notions and technical terms. Moreover, his sensitivity in addressing the difficult issues, especially evident in today’s lecture, is admirable. Likewise, his engagement with the question-and-answer sessions modelled cordiality, an authentic attempt to understand the points and questions put to him, and, particularly noteworthy, an ability to think further along the lines of his lectures in response to the questions.
    As a member of the University of Edinburgh Giffords Lectures Committee, I am particularly pleased with our selection of Professor Waldron as this year’s lecturer and with the highly informative, thoughtful, and stimulating lectures that he has delivered. Please join me again expressing again our appreciation for them.

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